Sunday, January 15, 2017

Great Promises from the Prophecy of Jeremiah #3 : Jeremiah 32: 36-44 - “I will make with them an Everlasting Covenant

The human heart instinctively yearns for paradise, for  a place of peace  and tranquility.  We were made for peace and tranquility, but we don’t seem to get it on this earth. And so we spend  money  to  get away  to places where we  hope to  get away from the  great rat race. On a far  larger scale,  and for  thousands of years,  mankind has  migrated  and separated  to get  away from each other.  Abraham and Lot separated. Listen to these words: “Then Abram said to Lot, “let there be  no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen…. Is not the whole land  before you? Separate yourself from me…” [Gen. 13:8,9].

The history of  the world is the history of a people on the move. People  are  forever seeking  to escape political,  religious, social and economic   conflicts. People are forever  in search for  a place  where they can build their idealistic futures. This is the origin of the American dream and I suppose everyone else’s dream.   But there is  no safe place on the face of this earth. As long as  there is a devil  and  as long as  there are sinners on the face of this earth this will not happen.   Peace and tranquility  will continue  to  elude us.   

I have always been fascinated by the story of the  mutiny  on  the  Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty which  occurred in the south Pacific on 28 April 1789. Led by Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, disaffected crewmen seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and set him and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship's rowing boat. Some of the mutineers settled on Tahiti and others on Pitcairn Island, one of the most  isolated islands in the South Pacific. Bligh  completed a voyage of more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km) in the  little boat to reach safety, and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice.  Fletcher  Christian's group,  undiscovered on Pitcairn until 1808, could have carved out  a life of bliss  for themselves, far away from  that civilization from which they came, where there was always war.  When they were  eventually found, only one mutineer, John Adams, had  remained alive. All his fellow mutineers, including  Fletcher Christian, had been killed, either by each other or by their Polynesian companions.  

The human  race is  simply not able to live in peace  with one another – nowhere!  Our  manner is like that  of Cain,   who not only murdered his brother, but who  became a fugitive and a restless wanderer upon the earth (Gen. 4:12). Only the  Prince of peace  by His word, the gospel of peace,  can bring about peace with God and with one another.  When He is not at the centre we are ready to murder one another.

And so it was in Israel. Though Israel  was endowed  with  the unique  favour  of  the God of all Creation,  and although she was   so  favoured with  God’s presence and God’s  good law  to govern her  society, her people   could not manage to live  under God and in submission to one another. As soon as they forgot the law of God within a generation  Israelite   society   was inundated   with murder, intrigue, idolatry  and idol worship, lawlessness, poor relationships  and the like in all levels of society.   
Now the nature of the God of all creation  is holy and just and loving. In  this spirit He entered into a covenant   relationship with  Abraham and  then with Israel. But,  the people of the covenant weren’t always committed to  the terms of the Covenant. And so God, being holy and  righteous and loving and merciful needed  to be what He is.  As a holy  and righteous God, He  needed to  punish   the sin  of His people. But as a loving and merciful  covenant keeping God, He  needed  to  preserve them. And so, at this time of Israel’s history  in about 589 BC, He did both. He handed them  and their city over to  be  destroyed by   their enemies, and  He preserved  a good portion of them from destruction by taking them  out of  Jerusalem  and into Babylon  for their own good (!) promising to bring them back from there in 70 years. 

And so, as we pick up at v.36  we read: "Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, 'It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence'.  
Notice the emphasis  in v. 36 .. “you say…” PERIOD!  Although it is all true, that  Jerusalem will be sacked, and true that  Israel  must go into captivity, because she has violated God’s covenant   they  and we  must remember that this is not the end of the story.  In His wrath  towards His sinning  people   God does not forget to  exercise mercy. Often,  when we experience  the  chastising hand of our Good Father in Heaven,  we only tend to see the dark side of things  and not the end of  things. In reality it  is  never  “You say…”, but “God says”, and He isn’t finished yet. 

Listen to the next verse, vv. 37,38: “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people and I will be their God.”   The bad news suddenly  turns into good news.   
That is the essence of the gospel in Isaiah 9:2  [quoted in Matt 4:16] a Messianic text : “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” After many years of spiritual darkness  and the  absence of the Word of the Lord, the messenger has suddenly come to His temple [Mal 3:1]. That will be true of the second coming at the end of all times. Suddenly, the Lord Jesus will be here. [Matt. 24,25 ; 1 Thess. 5: 1-6; 2 Pet. 3:10].

A recent article published by Christianity Today  says that  “for the third year in a row, the modern  persecution of Christians  worldwide has hit another record high in 2016." [Research from Open Doors].   So, yes, Syrian  and Iraqi  Christians  have been driven from their land , but yes, the present fate  of   the Christian people in Syria  and Iraq  is not the last word. God has the last word. And in this context,  it is a word of grace.

So, yes,  God  has driven  His people  into these foreign lands, but yes, that is not the final  word on the matter.  God  sent His people into Babylon for a while  to  preserve them  there. The same has happened when God sent His people to Egypt for a little while. The Lord Jesus and His parents needed to hide there for a little while from the wrath of Herod, so that the Scripture says, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.” [Matt.2:15]  Suddenly,  the LORD  brings His people back. God promises here  that He  will gather them and bring them back to their land and to Himself.  In a moment we shall see that this promise is connected to an eternal covenant, and applicable to us.
And so, by way of application I want to ask a question:  If God is a God of eternal holiness and justice,  who can  hand  sinning Israel  over to the Babylonians  and  also  send them into  exile, far away from home, then  how do we  know that this will not happen to God's chosen people today - the church, the bride of Christ, the true  sons  and daughters of  Abraham?   And  following that question  comes the next question. Can  God  see us through  our sinful neglect  of Him? Can He bring us   into a place of peace and tranquility?  The answer is  a resounding  “yes!”, and that is what the rest of the text is essentially  about - the  amazing  grace of God  to undeserving  sinners.  This grace is our  only sure confidence for the future. You and I,  are utterly  unreliable. If we were left to our own powers to keep the faith and to  be holy  and to  persevere, we wouldn’t  make it. Grace is all of God. “Grace  has led me safe thus far, and  grace will lead me home”  wrote John Newton.  Another hymn, “Come Thou Fount of every Blessing”,    written  by a 22  year old  pastor,   Robert Robinson in  1758  confesses the same truth :

O to grace how great a debtor, daily  I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

Now the  gracious promise of God  towards  His true people  rests on the foundation of His covenant:  
"And I will make  with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me into their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in  faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”

This is one of several Old Testament promises of the new covenant that Jesus said He sealed with his own blood for all who are in him. This promise is not just for the believing  Jews, but for those who are true Jews, true sons and daughters of Abraham  by virtue of union with Jesus,  who is  the seed of Abraham (Gal.3:7,16).

Four Promises  For Faithful  Believers  As They Negotiate Difficult Times

1. God Will Be Our God :  V. 38: "And they shall be my people and I will be their God. ”God is for us, even  when we have to experience calamity.   God sees to it that we remain His  people. All that He  is  as God, He  exerts for  their good.

2. God Promises to Change Our Hearts :  V. 39 &  40b  "I will give them one heart and one way that they may fear me forever … that they may not  turn from me… (v. 40b) .  Under the everlasting covenant sealed in the blood of Jesus, God will not simply stand by to see if we, by our own powers, will fear him. No ! He  will sovereignly and  mercifully give us the heart that we need to have, by which we will  be led safely home to heaven.

3. God Promises   to give us the ability to remain faithful to Him : V. 40: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them…”.  This is what is different about the new covenant, when compared with the Old  Covenant.   The New covenant  promises  that  God’s people  will  be given the ability, the power,  to trust God , fear God  by the indwelling Spirit  through Jesus  Christ our Lord, who has kept the law of the Old Covenant,  that we could never keep.  Under the New Covenant we are enabled by sovereign Grace.  

4. God Promises to Do This with  All His heart and Soul:  V. 41   Although  the eternal , infinite God is not a man like us, He has attributes  of personality, just like us, and here  He is saying through Jeremiah that He intensely desires   our good with His entire heart and soul. And oh, how infinitely big  God’s heart and souls is… not like mine and yours.
God will keep His  promises as  surely  as He will exercise  His wrath.  That is what we are called to learn today, and that is how Chapter 32 ends.  As He has brought disaster   upon His people, so will He  bring  all the good  that He has promised.     He will do this  notwithstanding their present despair (v. 42).


The true church of the Lord Jesus Christ in these very difficult days almost appears to be obscure. She is  persecuted  from without and within. The enemy is not only out there, but He is in here, and sometimes I think that the latter is the more insidious problem  that we have. But this we may know:  The church  shall have rest after these  days of adversity.  We may look forward to it. In history  and from  time to time God has given us revivals,  short periods of respite  just so that we would not grow unduly discouraged . But a time is coming  when God  will restore  peace in the earth … when metaphorically  speaking houses and lands and fields shall be bought.  This is the fulfillment  of a promise made to Jeremiah by God  in the earlier part of Chapter 32.  All this points forward  to our heavenly Canaan, reserved for all those who have God's fear in their hearts and do not depart from him.  Keep  the eternal city  in sight as you  continue your pilgrimage. 
Heaven is our ultimate  goal!

Monday, January 9, 2017

GREAT PROMISES FROM THE PROPHET JEREMIAH # 2 : Jeremiah 32:17 " Nothing is too hard for you!"

“Ah Lord God! It is you  who have made the heavens and the earth by your great  power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”  [Jer. 32:17]

OUTLINE OF  CHAPTER 32:

1.            Vv. 1-5: Jeremiah is imprisoned for prophesying  the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of king Zedekiah. 

2.               Vv. 6-15:   In these desperate times Jeremiah, by divine  command,  buys  land. God assures him that although times  will  be presently  tough for Israel, he will remain in charge of Israel’s future and therefore Jeremiah may buy this land with confidence. 

3.                  Vv. 16-25:  Jeremiah’s response in prayer, which includes   our text: “Ah Lord God! It is you  who have made the heavens and the earth by your great  power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”  [v.17]. It  is a great affirmation of faith  despite  the fact that things in Israel  do not look good .

4.                  Vv. 26- 44:  The  Word from God  through Jeremiah:
(i)                  32:26-35: Prophesying  the  destruction of Judah and Jerusalem for their sins.
(ii)           32:36-44: At the same time he must assure them that, although the destruction was total, it  will  not be final. God will restore  His people to their land.  With this in mind, we now   consider the historical situation.

 THE HISTORICAL  SITUATION :

Vv. 1-5 : The predicted  fall of Jerusalem is now imminent.   The events that led  to the fall  of  Jerusalem were initiated by  Nebuchadnezzar II,  king of Babylon. In 605 BC  he  defeated the Egyptian  Pharaoh Necho at the Battle of Carchemish. The Egyptians had been in an alliance with  Israel at that point, and  so the defeat of the Egyptians  opened up  the way for Babylonia to  attack  Jerusalem. The first  siege  of Jerusalem happened  in 597 BC.  Following that  siege Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as  a  vassal  king.  However, in time  Zedekiah revolted against Babylon, and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra, the king of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar responded  again  by invading Judah  and began  the second  siege of Jerusalem in December 589 BC, and  which lasted  until 586 BC.  In 586 BC, the 11th  year of Zedekiah's reign, Nebuchadnezzar broke through Jerusalem's walls, conquering the city. Zedekiah and his followers attempted to escape but were captured on the plains of Jericho and taken to Riblah. There, after seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded, bound, and taken captive to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until his death. Thereafter,   the  Babylonian general, Nebuzaraddan, was sent to complete  the  destruction of  Jerusalem. The city  was plundered, and Solomon's Temple was destroyed. Most of the Jewish  elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. The city was razed to the ground. Only a few people were permitted to remain  in the  land.  Gedaliah was made governor of the remnant of  the people  under the watchful eye  of a  Babylonian garrison  stationed at Mizpah. On hearing this news, the Jews who were in  exile in the territories  of Moab, Ammon, Edom, and in other countries returned to Judah. Gedaliah was assassinated two months later, and the population that had remained and those who had returned then fled to Egypt[1] for safety,  taking  Jeremiah with them  against his will.[2]  

According to our text we  find ourselves  in  589 BC, at the beginning of the second siege.   The Jews  under king Zedekiah stubbornly offered resistance  against the counsel  of God by his true prophet. The siege   took a long time (11 years).  God's judgment came gradually upon them,  and whilst  the reality of the siege  was unfolding, the Jews   refused  to listen to the true prophet of God. They did not repent. Zedekiah would not listen. In fact he was highly offended   by   Jeremiah– so much that he  has him put into prison for telling the truth. 

Zedekiah chose  to  believe  the  false prophets  (see Chapter 28; 29:24-32) who were in the majority. A majority is not always right.   It takes  intimacy with God to hear His voice above the  popular opinion  and  the noise of the world.  True   believers need to be familiar with the God of the Word, and the Word of God in order to  discern  their times.  The prophet Isaiah   who prophesied  under similar  circumstances   to the northern kingdom,  approximately 150 years earlier, saw   that his people were  abandoning the counsel of their God, seeking the counsel of  occultic mediums and  necromancers, and he   said:  “To the teaching and to the testimony! If they  will not speak according to This Word, it is  because  they have no dawn”  (Isa.  8:19,20).

Vv. 6-15.   And now, whilst  in prison, an extraordinary thing happens.  God commands  Jeremiah  to buy  a piece of ground  from a  cousin  named  Hanamel  in Anathoth, Jeremiah’s home town. Imagine  this. You know  that your country is going to be overrun  by an enemy , and  yet  you buy real estate! Is this insane,  or  what?  What moved him to do this? God moved him, although humanly speaking this seemed to be an irrational move.   

A word of explanation is needed  here. Property  in those days was not  available  on the open market.  Property had to stay in the family.  In passing, please note how the transactions  were done in (vv  9-14)  with deed of purchase and  placing the deed of sale in an earthenware vessel  to last a long time! In 70 years (which is a lifetime) things would look very different, and the property would still be in the hands of the “Jeremiah Anathoth” family. A good man always makes sure that there  is  an inheritance  for his children.  The time would come when houses, and fields, and vineyards should be again possessed in this land,  and the family would have  the title deeds (32:15). And so we read  that his  cousin, a  kinsman came to offer it to him. It was not  that Jeremiah had wanted it. It came to him. It may have been a good  bargain, but the point is that he was a family member, and therefore entitled to this purchase.  The right of redemption [3] belonged to him (32:8), and if he refused,  the next family member might be approached. But, being a prophet  there was more to the story than meets the eye.  In this context, purchasing land in  desperate times  was  a statement of faith and  a vote of confidence in the sovereignty  and trustworthiness of God. “Ah Lord God… nothing is too hard for you.”

And so,  Jeremiah leads the way in word and in deed. He leads in faith and by example. In this he exemplifies the nature of the Christian ministry.  
Matthew Henry  comments: “ It concerns ministers to make it to appear in their whole conversation that they do themselves believe that which they preach to others and… impress it the more deeply upon their hearers, they must many a time deny themselves, as Jeremiah did in both these instances. God having promised that this land should again come into the possession of his people, Jeremiah will, on behalf of his heirs, put in for a share. Note, It is good to manage even our worldly affairs in faith, and to do common business with an eye to the providence and promise of God.”

Vv. 16-25 Jeremiah's Prayer. This  brings us to this remarkable prayer  of Jeremiah to God. He knows what God is about to do in the short term and the long term. He knows God. And so, after putting the deed  of purchase into safekeeping with  Baruch, he prays.  In this prayer, he begins with:

1.Vv.17-19 - Worship: He  gives God the glory due to his name as the Creator and Sustainer  of the earth.    Here is a great lesson for us. When faced with difficult times and situations, we  do not  look for worldly solutions. We look to Almighty God, and we remind ourselves of who He is. He is   the fountain of all being. He has made the heaven and the earth with his outstretched arm and therefore who can control him? Who can contend with him?  Furthermore, we remind ourselves   that with God nothing is impossible. Nothing is too hard for Him.  He is always in charge. Moreover we remind ourselves that He is   the God who knows how to be merciful. “You show steadfast love to thousands…” (v.18a) but we also remember  that He is also  the God  of absolute holiness and righteousness, and therefore of  inflexible  justice He consistently hates  sin, and He will not  gloss over un-atoned sin. Every generation  that refuses to come to God for  free pardon  must bear the full fury of His wrath (v.18b). “His eyes are open to all the  ways of the children of man…”.  Nothing escapes Him.  Such  a God as this is not to be trifled with and  argued with. He is to be worshipped… He is to be bowed down. You will not conquer Him.He will conquer you!

2. Vv. 20-23: Remembering   the Past Works of the Lord  - His faithfulness.  He remembers how God had brought His people out of Egypt with signs and wonders – with an outreached arm.  He gave them this land, which they now stand to lose,  because of their rebellion.  It is good for us often to reflect upon the great things that God  has done for us  in the past, lest we  forget to be thankful in the present.

3. Vv. 24-25 Understanding the Present:  History provides us with and understanding of the present. God has previously redeemed His people against all human odds. He has previously handed His people over when they had rebelled against Him, as it is now…  “The siege mounds have come up to the city….the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans… what you spoke has come to pass, and behold, you see it”. Please   note that Jeremiah does not argue with God nor prescribe to God what He should do.  He knows God. He understands that  God  has an ultimate  plan  for good and not for evil (see  29:11). He understands that even in this situation, as challenging as it is,  nothing is too hard for God  (vv.  17,27).

Whatever trouble you are in, personally  as individuals or  corporately as families or as a  nation, know this:  God sees  and  knows how to bring everything towards a good end.  And so ends  the prayer: “ Yet you , oh Lord GOD have said to me, Buy the field for money and get  witnesses- though the city is given into the hands of the  Chaldeans .”  God says, “trust me in this, Jeremiah“.  

The rest of the chapter, from v.36ff  shows us how God intends to do it, but we will keep that for next  week … “ I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And  they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” [ 32:37,38]

APPLICATION

1.      The immediate application is  the historical situation in 589 BC and the  return approximately  70  years  later  in  520 BC under  men like leaders  like  Nehemiah  and Ezra  and prophets like  Haggai and Zechariah.

2.      The application with respect to ourselves are the timeless principles  found  here.  If  the local  church  becomes  faithless,  God  removes her  lampstand (Rev 2:5), but He does not remove the church. “I will build my church , and the gates of hell  will not prevail against it”  (Matt 16:18). Many local churches have come and gone over  the last 2000 years. Many a modern church  no longer holds on to the Word, as false prophets  have  taken the true Word of God  away from the people.  That church will die!  But there is always a remnant of faithful people and they find themselves displaced, as if in exile. But God never ultimately  leaves His people.  He remains the God of mercy and  wrath.  In time He restores His church, but He is not mocked.
God is patient.  We must be patient. God calls us to trust  Him  when things  look less than ideal. We must continue to invest in the kingdom although things look bleak. We must  continue to build biblical churches in  times of unfaithfulness, even  though they are small.

3.      But, in a greater sense Scripture always points towards  an ultimate fulfilLment.   There will come a time  when all the sin of the   earth will be subdued, when Christ comes again, and  when the  kingdom will be the Lord’s. This is what we aim to focus on next week.  Amen!




[1] 2 Ki. 25:25
[2]  Jer. 43
[3] See the book of Ruth 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

GREAT PROMISES FROM THE PROPHET JEREMIAH #1 - Jeremiah 29:1-14 "For I know the plans that I have for you!"

Great Promises  from the  Prophecy of Jeremiah  #1  :  

“For I know the plans I have for you ... plans for welfare  and  not for evil, to give you a future and a hope… You will seek me and find me , when you seek me with all your heart …”   
 [Jer.  29: 1-14]

I am thinking of  a number  of   reasons  for preaching  from the book  of Jeremiah  during this month of prayer and in  preparation for 2017. Here  are some...

1.     Jeremiah  gives perspective and encouragement in  spiritually  challenging times, and we need  such insight today.
2.      There are a number of  wonderful texts  and promises in Jeremiah, such as this one in verse 11,12 which are quoted  easily  out of context. We do not want to minimize the joy and comfort that this texts brings, but we do want to use them  thoughtfully and responsibly, combining the text   with our own situation, as the Word of God is applicable to all  ages.
3.     We  find ourselves at the beginning of a new year.  The future is always daunting, and we always need to  trust the LORD  for that  which is to come. As for myself,   I am commencing my 28th year  with you. My desire,  as always, is to enter  into this year  thoughtfully and prayerfully, knowing myself to be in the hands of  a Sovereign God who knows what He is doing.  May the message of Jeremiah contribute  to that  understanding.

Context:

In Chapters 29-31, we find a series of messages to the Jews  who  were carried  into  exile  in Babylon, under the rule of  King Nebuchadnezzar,  around the date  586 BC.  Whilst this is not a happy situation, God has a message of hope  to His people who are in exile.  God’s ultimate purpose is to bring them  back  in to their land.  He  assures them that  He continues  to  love them  with an everlasting love (31:3), but the demonstrations  of  true love  can sometimes be tough.     So, Chapter 29 is a chapter in which God says some hard,realistic but loving things by  way of a letter written by Jeremiah  to His  beloved people in exile. Jeremiah  has to remind them that they are in Babylon, a place not of their choice,  by God’s design, and that this design was  meant for their good.

Vv.1-3    This is  a letter  from God   by the hand of  Jeremiah from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. 

Vv. 4-23  contain  the message of the letter. The message in essence was that  the Jews   would be serving  a 70 year exile  in  Babylon (v.10), and   God wanted them settle down in this time, and   to stop living in the past. He wanted  them to lead  productive lives : “Build houses… plant gardens… marry… have children… increase and do not decrease…”.  God  commanded them not to be dissatisfied and militant, but  “to seek the welfare of the city… to pray for it… since in its welfare would be their welfare!” (vv.5-7) Wise words, and utter applicable to us.  For many of us, Windhoek is not our home town, or choice of  city to live in. But we have been placed here by the providence of God. Settle down and  pray for the welfare of  Windhoek, for in its welfare you will find your welfare!     

There  was another matter  to consider. False prophets were trying to deceive  them, making them restless and dissatisfied, telling  them that they  would not be in exile for long and that they  would  return to Jerusalem soon (vv.  8,9).    The problem of false prophets is  a  perpetual problem  for us.  Who is talking to you at this time?  God,  by His Holy Spirit inspired Word,  or  is it your sinful nature/desires or  some false  prophet  talking to you? The rest of the chapter,  from vv. 15 - 31  deals with this scourge of misinformation, which so often  undermines the  godly tranquility and rest  to which God calls His people. 

In  this context  false prophets  cannot stand  the thought of  God sending His people  into a long exile. They do not  like the  thought of  suffering for  the purpose  of sanctification at all. They do not see  the  value of the cleansing effects  which  suffering  and trials  under the hand of a  good God can bring.  Like the modern  false prophets  they preach that  everyone  deserves  health, wealth and happiness.  In Jeremiah’s own words, they constantly  preach “peace, peace , when  there is no peace” [1]. This certainly is not true  of Jeremiah. As the true prophet of God , he must speak  the Word of the Lord. A key phrase in Jeremiah is  the phrase “the WORD of the LORD came to me”, which is used over 50 times.  The  Word of God  teaches us that God uses suffering in a sanctifying way.

In 1989 John Piper presented a  biographical  paper on the life of Charles Simeon (1759 -1836), an Anglican  Evangelical  pastor,   at the annual  Bethlehem Baptist Church Pastors Conference. In his fifty-four years at Trinity Church, Simeon became a powerful force for evangelicalism in the Anglican church. However for much, if not for most  of his long and effective  ministry, Charles Simeon  endured incredible hostility.  John Piper’s  paper  was entitled “Brothers, we must not mind a little suffering” . This is an excerpt from his paper :

“In April, 1831, Charles Simeon was 71 years old. He had been the pastor of Trinity Church, Cambridge, England, for 49 years. He was asked one afternoon by his friend, Joseph Gurney, how he had surmounted persecution and outlasted all the great prejudice against him in his 49-year ministry. He said to Gurney, "My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory".[2]  

God’s purpose  for the little suffering that Israel had to endure at this time was never designed for  evil, but for good, and this  thought forms the background to  our text in verses 10 -14 :         
God promises them here that, although they  would not return quickly to their homeland, they would certainly return in time,…  after a 70 year  period.  Now, in the life of a person that is a lifetime. Imagine, having to live a lifetime in a place not of your choice. It naturally begets  discontent, and  so godly men and women have often cried,  “How long, sovereign Lord?[3] We, in Southern Africa ourselves have lived in a spiritual drought  for  at least 30 years. We have been pummelled by false prophets, and the  spread of  a  pseudo - Christianity  has been alarming. Many sincere Christians   are asking that question, “How long, oh Lord will we have to endure this?”  How long will the true church be scattered and disunited? Martin Luther in his time, saw the Roman Catholic as  a type of Babylon, as He spoke about the Babylonian captivity of the church. The 16th century Reformation broke the  Roman yoke as many  men and women were led into the  freedom that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ  has brought.

Now, please take note, and take courage. Although  we may sense frustration  with the general state of the church, not being in the place that she should be,  be assured that it will come in God's time, and  be assured  that  will be  the best time- the right time. With regard to the supreme promise of God  regarding the coming of a Messiah, to deliver not only  Israel, but the whole world , i.e. all nations  from the bondage of  sin , the apostle  Paul said:  “… when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son….” (Gal. 4:4,5);   “For while we were weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6)  

The promise here  to Israel  in  exile in Babylon, a foreign land  of  foreign customs and foreign religions,  is that  God will  fetch them and bring them back. Though they are dispersed,  among the nations,  God  will gather them from all the places where He has  scattered  them, and He  promises to gather them  and  gather them again into one body.   The supreme  fulfilment of this promise is of course when the whole church, past, present and future  shall be gathered in heaven!

This is God’s promise in v. 10.   This  is in accordance  with God's purposes concerning them in v.11: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  God knows the plans  that He has for us. Very often we  do not know our own thoughts. We struggle to understand  and make sense of events that seem to be contradictory  in terms of our understanding of God’s goodness.  Now  we  may be uncertain, but  God is never  unsure or uncertain  within himself.  He, the omniscient, all knowing God knows the beginning from the end for He is the Alpha and Omega.  He knows the way, for He is the Way , the Truth and the Life! Sometimes we doubt whether God’s plans and designs for us are good, but  we must trust God. He knows what He is doing, and we must believe that his designs for us   are  beneficial, even when it seems  that  God's designs are all against us. The fact remains that He says that He does these things for our good and not for evil.  There will be a beneficial outcome in time,  though perhaps not when  we  expect it.  We need to be patient until the fruit is ripe. And this is true  for ourselves. To illustrate, I would like to  quote  again  from John Piper’s biography on  the life of Charles Simeon.  Piper writes …
The most fundamental trial that Simeon had —and that we all have — was himself. He had a somewhat harsh and self-assertive air about him. One day, early in Simeon's ministry, he was visiting Henry Venn, who was pastor 12 miles from Cambridge at Yelling. When he left to go home Venn's daughters complained to their father about his manner. Venn took the girls to the back yard and said, "Pick me one of those peaches." But it was early summer, and "the time of peaches was not yet." They asked why he would want the green, unripe fruit. Venn replied, "Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun, and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr. Simeon."

We need  to  learn that in God’s economy things take time, and we must always remember that every soul is made for eternity. And even if you do not get  to your  earthly Jerusalem , the city of your dreams in this life , then , if you have  hoped in Christ in this life  you certainly will find it  in the New Jerusalem, where the Lord Jesus has gone now to prepare a place for you.     In  the exercise of His plan , Peter says that  God is not slow   to fulfill His promise (1 Peter 3:9), and if it is  a trial like these Jews underwent in Babylon, or whatever trial  you may find, be assured that this trial will not last forever.  Even death will not separate you from the promises  of God.

This shall be in answer to their prayers  to God. (Jer. 29:12-15. ) In exile, Israel will learn to pray:  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD.  
Matthew Henry’s commentary  upon this is lovely:  “When God is about to give his people the expected good,  he pours out a spirit of prayer, and it is a good sign that he is coming towards them in mercy. Then, when you see the expected end approaching, then you shall call upon me. Note, Promises are given, not to supersede, but to quicken and encourage prayer: and when deliverance is coming we must by prayer go forth to meet it.

So, let us  enter  2017  prayerfully, fully expecting deliverance  from our  own Babylonian captivity. God, in His goodness sometimes gives  temporary relief on this earth by sending us into a pleasant arbour (Pilgrims Progress), but we always remember that  this earth is not our true home.
In the meantime we settle down, have families , grow gardens  and multiply. We shall be content, knowing that our heavenly Father  is  directing all of  history  and all of the  future to a glorious end ! Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

PSALM 73 - THE DILEMMA OF THE DISCONTENTED MAN

(NOTE: this sermon forms part of a series  of 4 sermons on Contentment and Discontentment, preached at the Swakopmund Baptist Church  on the 11th and 18th December 2016) 

The great value of the Book of Psalms is that  here we have godly  people  sharing  their very  real experiences, both in terms of  their  joys and  their struggles. For this reason the Book of Psalms has helped many Christians.  They see themselves in it as in a mirror. They can say, “This is my experience also.”  

When the Psalmist says for instance,  "For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD  will take me in” (Ps. 27:10).  Angela, a young Christian Ovahimba girl  in our church can relate to that. After she became a Christian,   her mother  told her to leave the house, but the Lord provided her with a new  Christian family  in the context of the Eastside Baptist Church.  
So too, a  time of spiritual  dryness   in one's own soul  may  relate to  the message of  Psalm 42:1ff :
“As the deer pants  for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you Oh God” , and its hope expressed - “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42: 5,6,11; 43:5)

One  remarkable  feature about the Psalms is the honesty with which the authors  tell the truth about themselves. We have an example of that here in  Psalm 73. The Psalmist Asaph  tells  us that  that he had  nearly slipped – not literally of course, but in a spiritual sense. He  confesses that  in that time  he  had become  embittered and  that he had behaved  like  a beast toward  God (73:21,22).  

So what had happened?

A situation had arisen in which he had become discontent with his  position as a believer before God. What honesty, and  again I remind you that this  where the  great value of the Psalms is found. There is nothing more discouraging than to meet  people who  give the impression that  they are always on top of things. That is certainly not true in the Bible and  of  the  Psalms. Here we meet people just like ourselves…. struggling with bitterness and discontentment. 

There was a time in the Christian church when  a doctrine of “Christian Perfectionism” was  a popular  expression  of faith, particular in the  so-called "Holiness movement".  People were saying that  they were not struggling with sin any longer, and  every testimony they bore  was a testimony of victory. The truth is that such people weren’t allowed to be honest.  Perfectionism  is simply not true to the experience of the people who teach this, for we know that they are fallible creatures like the rest of us. They put their teaching of perfection forward theoretically, but it is not true to their own experience. Thank God  that the Psalmists do not do that. They tell us the plain truth about themselves and  they  give glory to  God, and do not draw attention to themselves.   The motive  of the Psalmist  was not to  boast in himself. There is a confession of sin  which can draw  an unhealthy attention to ourselves.  This  is a very subtle danger.  Asaph  does not  want to  do that. He tells us the truth about himself because he wants to glorify God.

PSALM 73 IN A NUTSHELL :

Asaph starts with a summary  of his experience, being thankful that he has come through this trying and difficult time: "Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart".  That is the  theme, and the outcome  of this Psalm.   

Asaph had drifted from his spiritual moorings, but the important point is  that he came back, home to God  again. We all know something about that kind of experience in our own lives. We start in the right place and then we make a wrong decision  which takes us into a spiritual wasteland. 
Thank God for the turning point!
But  how did he get to this point of despair  and how did he come to the turning point? 

In vv. 2-15  he tells us about an  experience which left him  shaken, and that he very nearly fell. Now, he was clearly a man  who  sought to live a godly life.  He  was keeping his soul from sin. He was meditating upon the things of God.  He  was  in the habit of examining his life.  He  was devoting himself to a life  pleasing to  God. Yet, although he was doing  this, he was having a great deal of trouble, as vv. 13 & 14 reveals.

We  are not told the exact nature of his troubles.  It  may have been  sickness or  trouble in his family or something else. It is clear that he felt severely tested, and nothing seemed to be going right for him. But there was an even  greater issue which he struggled with.  He saw a striking contrast between  the lives of the arrogant, the wicked, the ungodly  man and himself.    The wicked seemed to prosper in the world.  Everything seemed to go smooth with them (v. 4ff). They are  not in trouble, they were not stricken,… they were proud and affluent.  They were self - assertive and confident, and they  were even confidently challenging God  and heaven (vv. 9-11). The same sort of thing happens today. You have people  who are not faithful believers. Things are going well with them, and they make  blasphemous statements about God. They say, "How does God know”, and “is there knowledge in the most High?"  They see themselves as prosperous and successful, and by contrast they see you, the true believer  struggling  in every way.  This can lead to real discontentment in one’s  soul.  So, let us try to understand this  phenomenon.   

Perplexity Is Not Surprising

The first  thing we want to note  is this. Don’t be surprised  when this happens. Remember  that  God  has a fundamental principle written in the Bible. It says,  "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8).  Much of our  trouble  arises from the fact that we do not understand  this basic principle. We forget  that  we  are  dealing with the mind of God, and that God's mind is not like our mind. We see everything  as  cut and dried and simple. We think  that life is one big formula. Do this, do that,  and all will  work out alright. We  tend to think  and feel that there should never be any problems or difficulties. We tend to think that God should always be blessing His own children,  with health , wealth and prosperity. But it is not  that simple. 

The Bible  teaches us that the ways of God are unsearchable. The  Bible teaches us  that  His purposes are so great,  that our sinful minds cannot understand them. God  can never be reduced to a formula, and when He is dealing with us, it ought not surprise us if, at times, things take place which are perplexing to us.

Common perplexities are these :  Why is it that God allows political  tyrants to rule? Why does He allow war, and suffering and natural disasters?  Why does He not deal with the godless as soon as they sin? That is our way of thinking. But it is based on a fallacy. God's mind is eternal, and God's ways are so infinitely above us that we must always start by being prepared  by God’s unusual providences.   If we do not do that we shall soon find ourselves in the place where Asaph found himself.

Perplexity Is Not Sinful

Furthermore, it has to be said  that being perplexed is not sinful. Paul himself confessed in  2 Corinthians 4 that  he was "perplexed, but not in despair."  Please note! It  is not wrong to be perplexed, but it is wrong to be in a state of despair and hopelessness. Job was  perplexed, but he continued to hope in God (Job 13:5).   So, when you are perplexed about something that is happening  to you, this  does not mean that you are guilty of sin. You are in God's hand, and you say: I do not understand. There is nothing wrong with that. But here is the problem…

Perplexity Opens the Door to Temptation

This is what happened to Asaph.  His own suffering as a believer in God,   compared with the seemingly blissful state of the wicked  became a snare and a temptation to Asaph.    He is being tempted so badly that he is becoming discontent with God … and so his spiritual feet were slipping and  he was in danger of doubting God.  This temptation has a blinding effect.  He says,  “I was envious of the arrogant… the prosperity of the wicked…”  (v.3). This  is the blinding effect of temptation. It comes with such force that we are no longer able to think clearly. The effect  is so powerful,  that  we forget everything else. We forget the primary truths about God  and we begin to believe the lie of the devil  who  whispers into our heart, "Don't you think you have kept your heart clean in vain, and washed your hands in innocence?" (v.13)  You pray and you go to church.  There is something wrong with this outlook of yours. You believe the gospel; but look at what is happening to you! Why are you having this hard time? Why is a God of love dealing with you in this  way?  You are making a mistake; you are not fair to yourself." 
Oh, the terrible subtlety of it all. Paul talks of "the fiery darts of the evil one." (Eph. 6:16)

Again, understand that being  tempted in that way is not sin.  But how  do we deal with  that temptation?   How do we get back to  the beginning of v.1,  i.e. that 'God is always good to Israel'?  

The Turning point : vv.16, 17 

When did the perspective change  or return to Asaph? Before all this happened, and when he was trying to figure it all out in his mind,   it became to him a wearisome task. But it all changed when  he went into the sanctuary of God (v.17). Getting into the presence of God and under His Word brings  a perspective of which we are not capable  by ourselves. This is  a huge insight. This is true wisdom, Asaph is laying hold of God's wisdom. 
Our generation quickly runs to all sorts of counsellors  and get all sorts of man-centred opinions,  and very often the Word of God becomes  only the last resort.  See how everything changes for Asaph when he  takes himself into the presence of God.  

See how everything  now falls into place from vv.18-28 .
(i)                 He  clearly understands the outcome of the lives of the wicked (vv.18-20,27)
(ii)              He understands the nature of his own unbelief (vv. 21-21)- that he is embittered  and  like a brute  beast.
(iii)             He understands  what the future holds for  him (vv. 23-26;28)
(iv)              And this brings him back  to the conclusion in v.1

Conclusion 

May God grant us grace to  think biblically, and as  we do so, let us remember that we have the greatest illustration  and encouragement  in this regard  from the life of  our Lord Jesus  Himself.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, He spoke  these words, "Father, if it be possible take this cup from me."  There was perplexity. The thought of the sin of the world coming between Him and His Father perplexed Him. But He humbled Himself. The perplexity did not cause Him to fall, He just committed Himself to God saying in effect, "Your ways are always right. Your plan is always  good, and as for what you are  going to do to me will be  good because  you are  good. Not my will, but your will  be done."



Monday, November 21, 2016

1 Timothy 5:17-25: “Relationships in the Church: Your Relationship with your Elders”

A good relationship with God and people is  inherent  to the teaching of the Bible. It is  at the heart of the 10 commandments  and  it is reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:30,31 : “Love God … love your neighbour…”.  

The 5th Chapter  of   Paul’s letter to Timothy  deals  with relationships  at  different levels.  

(i)                 In  5:1-2  Paul  tells  Timothy how to relate, as a pastor  to older men, younger men, older women and younger women in the church.

(ii)               In  5:3-16  Paul helps Timothy  in terms of relating  to widows and vulnerable people in the church. We  will consider this  text, God willing  in February 2017  when we plan to have a “Diaconate Awareness Sunday”  explaining, and  showcasing our diaconal ministry.

(iii)             In 5: 17-25  Paul  explains  how  we ought to relate to  the  elders of the church, and how to understand their   calling and character.  
To this matter  we now turn our attention. 
  
The matter of  the elder and diaconal leadership  of the church was   already raised by Paul in Chapter 3: 1-13.  In the matter of eldership  Paul had  stated that “ If anyone aspires to the  office of an overseer, he desires  a noble task” (3:1)  after which he also gives a list of  necessary qualifications  (3:2-7).

Now as we come to our text in 5:17-25,   Paul deals  with  5  further  aspects   relating to  the office of the elder: 

(i)  5:17,18: The remuneration of  the  full-time elders- particularly those who are set apart  to labour  in preaching and teaching. 
(ii) 5:19-20: The  church discipline for elders who sin.
(iii) 5:21: The importance  of being impartial.
(iv)  5:22-23:  The importance of not  being hasty in the laying on of hands (w.r.t elder ordination)
(v)    5:24-25:  The importance of discernment.



1.      5:17,18 : The remuneration of  the  elders that rule well – particularly  those who are set apart  to labour  in preaching and teaching:

The emphasis here is on  the elders  who  “ruling well“. It  appears  as if the elders  of the  early churches were remunerated, because  they put in a lot of work and effort into the work of shepherding the flock, and Paul has particularly those in mind  who were set apart  for the  preaching and teaching  of the Word.  Such elders  who  ruled well in the church, and  especially those  that laboured  in the Word [Gr. kopos lit.  “toil  resulting in weariness” (Vines) ]  ought to be considered  worthy of double honour.  Since the  Word of God  is central to the church’s life  because the Word accurately preached  maintains the proper  Christ centered focus  of the church, it is important that  the church recognizes this appropriately. Such elders who rule well,  and who diligently labour in the Word, says  Paul are  worthy of double honour.  What is meant by double honour?  It means  generous provision, but this would  depend on  their efficiency,  as the adverb ‘well’  indicates.     

V.18  (a quote from Deut.  25:4)  is linked to this thought, and the argument  goes that if  God is concerned that working animals are adequately fed, how much more concern must He not have for those that labour  on behalf of the church. Paul’s second quotation  follows, “The labourer deserves his wages”. These words were in fact spoken by Jesus in Luke  10:7. [1] Comparing  pastoral work to   the work that  oxen or  labourers  do may not sound very flattering, but it does  in essence describe the work of the pastor.  Biblical pastors do a lot of plodding work, a lot of menial work. They are, after all,  only servants. However,  Paul  says, that such work  ought to  be tangibly appreciated  in the church.

2.      5: 19-20 : Church discipline for elders who sin : Those who do not rule well

Paul now turns from  good pastor –elders who deserve recognition and appreciation  to bad pastor elders who deserve  to be rebuked. He  address the  manner  in which  sinning elders need to be addressed.  Paul gives two directives in this regard:
(i)                  What to do when an elder is accused  (v.19)
(ii)                What to do when an elder is found guilty  (v.20)

In the first instance  Paul says  that  the church  is not  to receive  an accusation against an elder except  on the evidence of    two or three witnesses (v.19) i.e. the charge must be substantiated by several people. This is an OT principle (Deut. 19:15)  which is maintained in the NT ( 2 Cor. 13:1 cf. Matt. 18:16). This  regulation  is important  for the protection of  pastor –elders , who easily become the subjects of gossip and slander. A smear campaign can ruin a pastor’s ministry. Therefore it is important  that such charges  are actually proven. Hear-say   is not good enough. Facts  and witnesses are needed.

In the second instance, when an elder is  proven guilty  (and remains guilty or unrepentant  –  note the present tense), such  should be rebuked in the presence of all.  The general rule is that private sin ought to be  confronted privately,  and public sin ought to be  dealt with publicly. When elders sin against the church, they must be dealt with before the church, so that  the rest may stand in fear. Church discipline is necessary  because  the heart and life of the church is at stake. If problems are routinely ignored and glossed over, this produces  an atmosphere  where others will be tempted and encouraged to sin.  Church discipline  causes people  to take note .
Such an action, in terms of public rebuke  must always be the  last resort  however, and it is never a cause  for  gloating. It  is a very sad  thing  for  church elders to sin. Many   of God’s flock are devastated when that happens.

3.      5:21 : The importance  of being impartial

Now Paul   solemnly charges  Timothy with a very important matter, “ I charge you to keep these rules without  prejudging (Gr. prokrima – jumping to conclusions), doing nothing from partiality (favouritism).”  In the matter of dealing with elders  and people  it is very important that  a sense of  fairness must prevail. The history of the church has often shown the opposite, where sinning priests, pastors  and elders have  sometimes been  protected by the system and excused  from their sin, whilst  many a church member has continued  to  live  with the  bitterness of injustice.

Pastor-elders  must strive to  be impartial , and  where  two people  or parties  are at odds  with one another  it is important  that  sides are not taken ; that truth is established and that people are helped forward . At all times elders will strive to keep people together, since God is a God of peace   and the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of Unity and the Lord Jesus Christ has died to make us one.

4.      5:22-23 :  Be careful in  hasty laying on of hand (  with reference to elder ordination)

In context, the laying on of hands  here probably refers to pastor – elder  ordination. In the pastoral epistles  we have two  other occasions when mention is made of the laying on of hands  [1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6].
It is a very common human tendency to make premature and hasty decisions  which should have  been made with  adequate testing and prayer. There may of course be an opposite mistake,  when  we fail to make a decision at  all. The general rule is that it is  better to take time with the appointment of   church leaders.
There is an added thought linked to this statement, “nor take part in the sins of others”.  If through excessive haste a mistake is made or  if the person chosen as a leader in the church    happens to be spiritually unqualified or acting unwisely or sinfully (and contrary to the  character expressed in 1 Tim 3:1-7), Timothy may  find that he shares  in the sins of others or find himself implicated  in other people’s  misdeeds[2]. There is no thing such as sinning in isolation. An eldership can go through a very difficult time as a result of one man's sin, and much energy  needed elsewhere can be wasted and drained    when  the eldership  faces internal  sin issues. When this happens it almost feels that the gospel is  put on hold, while much  precious time is  spent on  resolving sin issues. 
Paul  wants to spare  Timothy  from these things . He wants  Timothy to  keep himself pure  by making wise, godly  leadership  appointments .

5.      5:24-25 :  The importance of discernment

These verses develop Paul’s emphasis on the need for caution and  add  a further reason to avoid haste. The fact of the matter is that  people are frequently different  from what they appear at first. Frequently we underestimate or overestimate people. The point is that  true character only surfaces over a period of time, and therefore time is needed to establish proven character. The passage in 1 Timothy  3:1-7 makes it clear that an elder’s character must be established  before  he can serve  as such.
Now, says Paul, ”the sins of  some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgement…”. The  case is clear  here, but other cases  “the sins  of others appear later”, The same criterion can be applied  to  good works. Some are  immediately apparent, “ and  in the same way  also good works are conspicuous”,  and other good works take a little time before they surface  “…and even those that are not  cannot remain hidden…”
The point is that we cannot judge by mere appearances. We need discernment. We learn this from an iceberg. 9/10 of the iceberg is hidden below the surface. In the same  way  9/10 of a person’s character is  hidden from view, and  is  this this  9/10  which is  the substance of the iceberg. It is this major fraction  that   does  the damage, as the captain of the Titanic discovered too late. We therefore need time to make an assessment  of a person’s character. Attractive  personalities and people  often have hidden weaknesses, whilst ordinary, unassuming people  may have hidden strength. Don’t judge a book by its cover, the English  Proverb says. You need to read it to make an assessment, and reading takes time.   Elders must never be chosen on the  superficial basis of having  high  business or political profiles.  Christian character is everything. It is the essential  test that an elder  must pass.  We need to learn to discern between the seen and the unseen, the surface and the depth, the appearance and the reality.

SUMMARY:
So then we have   learned 5  things  in understanding  and dealing with our  pastors or  elders: 

1.      Appreciate them when  they rule well
2.     Deal with them  fairly   when they do not do well.Make sure that any charge against an elder is substantiated by two  or more  witnesses. 
3.      Elders should be impartial , avoiding all favouritism
4.      Elders should be carefully chosen 
5.      A proper  discernment  needs to be made with respect to choosing elders.  Look beyond  outward appearance. 

Whenever the church takes these principles seriously, mistakes will be avoided and the church will be  preserved  in peace and love,  and God’s Name will be protected and  honoured. 
Amen!



[1] Context: Jesus charge to the 70
[2] see also Galatians  6:1